Italian Wine in China

China is a huge market, and wine merchants know it. 1.42 billion people inhabit a country of around the same size as the US and their interest in wine has been flourishing in the last decades. Over the next five years, consumption of wine in China will be worth $23 billion dollars, equivalent to 192 million cases. Everyone wants a piece that.

But selling wine in China is no easy feat. It is a dynamic market that transforms and responds to trends in unexpected ways. A traditional approach simply won’t do, which means wine merchants, exporters and producers must find new ways to reach importers and consumers. The Chinese wine market is still young, it has lots of room for development. Things have been changing recently.

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“Now there is a momentum”, says Simone Incontro, General Manager of Vinitaly in China

“Now there is a momentum”, says Simone Incontro, General Manager of Vinitaly in China, who just opened an office in Shanghai to understand the Chinese market. China is maturing at an amazing speed, enthusiastic wine lovers look for new wines to enjoy, and wine producers around the word are eager to show them the way.

Wine first entered Chinese market as a symbol of wealth, of power and status. It was business men and Chinese government representatives who splurged on wine, and not regular wine, but iconic Grand Crus and First Growths; La crème de la crème, wines only available to the super rich, not only in China but elsewhere. Now things are different, regular people are incorporating wine to their lives, not just at corporate levels, but in their personal routines.

Chinese love for Bordeaux and other classic French wines is well known, but they’re still on a learning curve. “Do they make wine in Italy?” asked the server when Mr. Incontro asked for Italian wine at a restaurant.

Italian wine has only 7% of the Chinese wine market. Only Italian restaurants carry these wines and rarely reach out to less familiar varieties and regions. Aglianico, Barolo, Brunello, and the ubiquitous Chianti can be found with certain ease, and the sparkling Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti are available here and there. Other than that, there’s not much more. This is just the tip of the iceberg, Italy has 408 distinct wines protected by law.

There has been progress. Vinitaly, the most important Italian wine fair in the world, held every year in Verona, had an increase of Chinese visitors of 34% last year; a huge leap compared to previous years. A similar event takes place in China, Vinitaly Shanghai has been thriving. This year not only large importers visited the fair, but small and medium firms where deeply engaged. This means Italian wines are getting noticed. Antinori, the Italian wine powerhouse, is coming to the fair this year, perceptions have changed, there’s light in the end of the tunnel.

Vinitaly knows education plays a big part on breaking into the market. Through their educational arm, Vinitaly International Academy, they are certifying Italian Wine Experts with lectures, seminars and examinations. The program is as challenging as any.

The biggest challenge Italian producers face is that they know nothing about China, they want to sell containers and have forgotten that pouring a glass of wine is the best way to sell it. It’s the satisfaction that comes from enjoying great wine that can change perceptions.

Mr. Incontro advises sore producers to go visit China, to look at wine lists, scroll the supermarket isles, talk to people. The expectations have been really high, but the sales haven’t been as expected. Producers can’t expect to open the market by themselves, they have work together, as a team, under one brand: Italy. Perhaps they could learn something from Australia.

Wine Australia is an umbrella brand that pushes producers, exporters and intermediaries in the wine business deep into Chinas market. Wine of all varieties and price points have grown exponentially and have now a big share of China’s wine market. Something that wouldn’t have been possible by the work of a few producers. It has taken the efforts of all, in harmony. The results are clear.

Aided by the introduction of the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement, and the growing interest of the budget minded Chinese middle class, Australian wine has doubled, and then tripled its share of the market.

“The renaissance of Italian wine will come from south Italian wines and some special white wine”, says Mr. Incontro. Southern Italian wines like Primitivo from Apuglia, or Nero d’Avola from Sicily, known for their good value, are rising in popularity amongst Chinese young people. Italy is more that it’s iconic expensive wines, it offers amazing value from the least known regions.

Surprisingly, Italian white wine is having a moment. Wines like Pecorino and Soave, light, crisp, fresh wines are good and cheap. This is a revelation since Chinese people had been known for their predilection for red wine. White wine is also an amazing pairing for the varied Chinese cuisine.

Italian wine is varied enough to successfully tackle every food pairing in the world, including Chinese. Lambrusco and Moscato d’Asti are great options for a traditional Chinese Hot Pot, its spiciness is attenuated by the subtle sweetness of the wine. White wines like Soave are great pairings with dumplings and for heartier dishes, like Mongolian lamb, from inner China, Tuscan reds over deliver.

As Chinese people continue to discover new and exciting wines to enjoy, there’s no doubt that Italian wine will find a place in their hearts soon. And it's only the beginning, the entire world of wine is looking for their turn to join the party; China is now the top Market for Chilean wine and demand for Spanish wine is booming. Chinese people are conscious buyers, they won’t get fooled by marketing stunts. Chinese study and do their research, they grow their collective wine knowledge at an amazing speed. In 2018 American wine exports to China only accounted for 3% of China’s wine market, but there’s a bright future ahead.

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Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer